Implicit and Emotional Bias in the 2016 Presidential Election


We conducted a psychological evaluation of voter implicit and emotional responses to current political themes (sexism and racism) and candidate imagery (including positive and negative imagery).


Our goal was to uncover implicit biases across voter demographics (Republicans and Democrats, various age groups, men and women, Clinton/Trump/third party voters, as well as a few other indices).


We used a brief demographic survey followed by validated psychological methodologies: implicit association tests and a self assessment psychological response test. The implicit association test is a psychological measure designed to detect the strength of a person’s automatic association between mental representations of objects and concepts. We used two adapted versions of IATs for gender and racial bias. The self-assessment psychological test is a non-verbal assessment that directly measures a person’s affective response to a wide variety of stimuli (positive and negative images of the primary 2 candidates, lawn signs for all candidates, image of Bill Clinton).

Expected outcome

We expected to understand voter implicit biases more deeply as well as the use of positive and negative imagery. While some findings may be intuitive (i.e. Women voters may be less sexist), we expected that there may be some surprising outcomes as well given that these are implicit associations which can expose surprising biases. Further, by examining the emotional reactions to imagery from the campaigns we expected to uncover interesting findings regarding the effect of imagery currently used in internet and social media memes that have become more important in the current race than in previous presidential races.


Our study revealed the implicit biases and emotions of voters in this 2016 election cycle.

We found that of the biases we examined (gender and racial), we were only able to find an implicit bias for racism (across all voters). While Trump supporters were significantly more biased than the other voters to have negative feelings toward African Americans, all voters were somewhat biased.

Emotionally, when viewing positive imagery of their own candidate, voters felt positive, excited and motivated. This was opposite when presented with positive imagery of the opposing candidate. When viewing negative imagery of their opposing candidate, voters tended to feel more negative; however, when voters viewed negative imagery of their own candidate, they felt more excited and motivated than the viewers voting for other candidates. Additionally, while third party voters were less motivated by Clinton images, they were also less interested in Trump images. Overall, we can say that imagery plays a major role on playing into the emotions of voters, but most interestingly, negative imagery seems to motivate supporting voters more than those voting for opposing candidates.


Implicit bias has been a major piece of this election cycle.

GENDER BIAS: With gender stereotypes being tossed around, including questions of having our first female presidential candidate from a major party and potentially the first female president, questions have been raised as to whether sexism is playing a role in voters’ choices. Interestingly, we found that study participants did not exhibit gender stereotype associations, regardless of who they plan to vote for (Clinton, Trump, or third party).

RACIAL BIAS: We also tested for implicit biases toward race, specifically looking for negative African American biases. Interestingly, all political affiliations exhibited some form of negative bias (moderate) towards African Americans; however, those planning on voting for Trump displayed a significantly higher bias compared to those voting for Clinton or third party. It is important to note here that there were significantly more African American voters planning to vote for Clinton. However, even if these voters were removed from the sample, Trump supporters were still significantly more biased against African Americans.


We also examined voters’ emotional reactions to various imagery currently being experienced in the run up to the election, images of the primary candidates (Clinton and Trump) as well as images of political lawn signs (pro –Trump, -Clinton, -Johnson, -Stein) and an image of former president Bill Clinton (since he has also been of interest in the current election). Most importantly, we wanted to explore the emotional reactions of voters to positive and negative images of the candidates, since such imagery has become more popular on social media and very negative ad campaigns, many featuring memes using exaggerated imagery of each candidate.

POSITIVE CLINTON IMAGE. While Clinton voters felt positive, excited and motivated when viewing positive Clinton imagery, Trump and third parties voters felt significantly more negative, disinterested, and passive than Clinton voters.

POSITIVE TRUMP IMAGE. Trump voters felt more positive, excited and motivated while viewing positive Trump imagery than Clinton and Third Party voters. Clinton and third party voters felt significantly more negative and passive (less in control) than Trump voters when viewing the same imagery. Additionally, Trump voters also felt significantly more excited than Hillary and third party voters.

The effect of Trump and Clinton images on third party voters indicated they felt significantly more negative, less interested, and less motivated than Trump voters viewing a Trump image and Clinton voters viewing a Clinton image.

CLINTON/KAINE LAWN SIGN. Clinton voters felt significantly more positive, excited and motivated while viewing Clinton/Kaine lawn signs than Trump and third party voters.

TRUMP/PENCE LAWN SIGN.  While Trump voters felt more pleasant, excited, and motivated than Clinton and Third Party voters, Clinton and third party voters felt significantly less positive, less excited and more passive (less in control) than Trump voters.  In addition, third party voters felt significantly more positive than Hillary voters.

BERNIE SANDERS LAWN SIGN. Clinton and third party voters felt more positive than Trump voters towards Bernie lawn sign imagery. Clinton voters were also more excited towards the sign than Trump voters.

JOHNSON/STEIN LAWN SIGN. Third party voters felt more pleasant, excited, and dominant than Trump or Clinton voters when exposed to either third party candidate sign (Gary Johnson or Jill Stein).

NEGATIVE CLINTON IMAGE. Both Trump and third party voters felt significantly more negative than Clinton voters while viewing negative Clinton imagery, while Clinton supporters were more neutral. Clinton voters did feel more excited and motivated by negative Clinton imagery than either Trump or third party voters.

NEGATIVE TRUMP IMAGE. Clinton and third party voters felt significantly more negative towards negative Trump imagery, while Trump supporters felt more neutral. Trump voters were also significantly more excited and motivated when viewing negative Trump imagery than Clinton or third party voters.

This difference in reaction to the Clinton and Trump angry images reflects that negative imagery has significant negative effects on non-supporters while exciting and empowering supporters.

BILL CLINTON IMAGE.  Both Clinton and third party voters felt more positive about Bill Clinton’s image than Trump supporters.  However, third party supporters felt negative about the image. Trump and third party voters were not excited by the image. Clinton supporters felt more motivated than Trump or third party voters.


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